BOXING : Lewis hit by low blow from WBC

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reports from Sacramento

An interesting thing about the important victory Lennox Lewis achieved at the Arco Arena here on Saturday when he stopped Lionel Butler after 2 min 55sec of the fifth round, was the effect of the circumstances on an assessment.

Because Lewis had not fought since a violent loss to Oliver McCall last year when defending the World Boxing Council championship, and Butler had the reputation of a crude but potentially dangerous brawler, allowances could be made for shortcomings in application. However, Lewis's performance has to be set in the light of Butler's condition. One of the three official judges, the greatly experienced British referee, Larry O'Connell, could not recall a fighter entering the ring in such a dishevelled state. "Butler looked awful," he said.

Barely able to prevent his trunks from slipping below a swollen abdomen, squinting through folds of blubber, becoming increasingly desperate, Butler as the WBC's third-ranked contender brought heavyweight boxing into further disrepute. Although Butler's rapid demise was widely predicted, Frank Bruno has been vilified for taking on opponents of similar dereliction. Last year, Butler was suspended in California for drug abuse. Much to the consternation of his promoter, Don King, a purse of around $900,000 (£580,000) for Saturday's contest was withheld by the Duva organisation, Main Events, pending the outcome of management disputes.

What happened next was instructive, and caused Lewis and his connections to feel less superior than he had felt when it became clear that Butler was in no fit state to continue. Under intense interrogation, the WBC's president, Jose Sulamain, admitted that victory in a final eliminator had only brought Lewis level with Mike Tyson in contention. Last year, when its annual convention was held in Seville, the WBC announced risibly that, as they did not agree with his sentence for rape, Tyson would be installed as No1 immediately upon his release.

This means that Lewis and Tyson will be jointly in contention as mandatory challengers if McCall survives a voluntary defence against Bruno, probably at Wembley in July. Agreeing that this could lead to legal wrangling, Sulamain left it as a matter for conjecture. "I don't wish to discuss it," he said.

Given that King, for all his faults, has an advantage in negotiation and is reliably amusing, his views attracted attention. "What we saw tonight proved that the heavyweight division is in a mess," he blustered. "When McCall fought Lewis you saw me up in the ring because I knew that Oliver would win. I didn't get in there tonight because Butler didn't have a chance. He hadn't trained properly.

"Lewis had nothing to beat but he didn't give value for money. It was exactly the sort of fight that's driving people away from boxing. Most of the time he ran away. Can you imagine what Tyson would have done to Butler? It would have been all over in a round. It's only a matter of time before Tyson mows all of them down."

According to King, an announcement of Tyson's plans is imminent. Meanwhile, Lewis will become involved in further rehabilitation. "I want to keep Lennox busy," his trainer, Emanuel Steward, said. Lewis's next fight will be in Dublin on 2 July probably against Ray Anis who stood by on Saturday as a substitute for Butler. Despite his agitation during the contest, Steward claimed to be satisfied with Lewis's efforts. "Lennox could have taken Butler out earlier but I didn't want him to take any chances," Steward said. "I wanted Lennox to concentrate on zones he could control from the outside."

Lewis's prime objective was to banish the residual effects of his first defeat. But there was nothing to suggest that Steward's tuition has brought about technical advances. Where it was thought that he would easily evade Butler's rushes, he retreated anxiously.

For as long as his stamina lasted, fighting disconcertingly out of a low crouch and throwing wild swings, Butler gave Lewis a problem. Certainly, one overhand right got through to cause anxiety in Lewis's corner.

At the start of the second round, Lewis caught Butler with a hard right but failed fully to realise the extent of its impact. He was more encouraged by the obvious effects of an uppercut and followed it up with a hurtful right cross.

Warned four times in all, once for pushing Butler over, Lewis finally woke up to the fact that he had very little to beat. By the end of the fourth round Butler was a standing target. Down from a right at the start of the fifth, he looked in no state to continue. Before the round was completed, Lewis caught him with another right and a following left. Butler subsided slowly into a sitting position where he took another right to the head.

The inevitable stoppage (King claimed that Butler refused to take up the referee's suggestion that he should carry on fighting) caused excitement in Lewis's corner. If it was not a great victory, Lewis was over a hurdle.

If there was merit in Lewis's performance the inescapable conclusion is that he remains more of an athlete than a natural fighter. At 29 he is not old for a heavyweight but he may have passed the age of improvement.